Italy, Balkans, April, 2019

March and April, 2019 Rome, Tuscany, Croatia, Slovenia, Milan

Mark and Vicki have spent 46 months since 2009 RVing in Europe. First in a Roadtrek Sprinter they shipped from the US, and since 2015, in a 2001 Fiat Ducato Class C that they purchased in Amsterdam. For practical write ups of their travels in Europe, New Zealand, Africa, and South America go to their website, and for lots of pictures subscribe to or search Mark's blog

We flew from San Francisco to Rome via a plane change in Barcelona on March 27. We had found a great one way fare on Iberia which is owned by British Air but it was actually operated by Level. Somewhat confusing but we figured it probably wouldn't be going belly up. We even upgraded to extra legroom for a reasonable amount though we didn't purchase meals aboard—airplane food in my opinion is not worth spending money on. Arriving too late to reasonably get our camper, we spent the night with our daughter and family at their air bnb in Rome—and took a Blacklane car to the storage area Prato Smeraldo, where our camper was parked. We moved the camper to the “camping area”, plugged in and were happy that everything worked. We had had some work done while we were gone including a new faucet installed in the bathroom which looked fine. They had not found a replacement coach battery though, so we researched that over the next few days and purchased a 100 amp AGM deep cycle Fiamm just before we left Rome—installed 215 E. I will continue to put prices in Euros instead of dollars as the Euro to dollar rate changes from year to year. This year the dollar is strong and 1 Euro is worth $1.12, about a 5% savings over last spring—in ten years it has been as high as $1.46 and as low as $1.06 but in the last four years pretty much averaging $1.15. Frankly, we don't worry about it any more. It is what it is.

Our older daughter is a teacher in Palo Alto and has a sabbatical this semester (private school). So much of the next three months we will be meeting up with her, her husband and our soon to be 8 year old granddaughter as they tour Italy and then rent an apartment in Paris. Nine hours of jet lag is a killer for us, so we spent seven days in Rome. This included an all day visit to the Vatican Museum even though we had been there last summer—but, darn, I forgot my binoculars so the Sistine Chapel just wasn't the same. We had made reservations but actually the regular line was fairly short when we arrived at 11 on a weekday. While Rebecca and Jeremy toured the Borghese Gallery (need reservations at least 2 weeks in advance even in shoulder season), we took Penelope to the Mouth of Truth, the Circus Maximus, and then the Basilica of San Clemente. We had been to the Basilica before but balked at the 10E charge to see the crypt as no pictures are allowed which makes Mark crazy. But a friend of a friend on Facebook remarked about how fabulous it was, so we went back and were blown away. The two lower levels are huge and full of walls filled with Roman debris—columns, statues, busts that had been used as filler when the medieval church was built. Further down there is a Mithras Temple, several Roman houses with a fresh water spring, and rooms that are thought to have been part of a Roman warehouse. All fascinating and, though no photos were allowed, there were also no guards. It was sparsely visited but everyone was taking pictures, of course. Mark was happy and Penelope was glad there were only a few sarcophagae, which she is not too keen on.

Penelope and family left Rome for Sorrento, Pompeii, etc., a few days before we did. After procuring our battery and filling the propane (you cannot fill camping propane (GPL in Europe) on the autostrada in Italy, only at neighborhood stations (and not many of those), we headed north to Orvieto. We stayed in the very nice 20E camperstop just outside the walls. This is the only place campers may park and since it is 2E an hour, if you plan on staying very long, you might as well spend the night. I am not going to give locations for camperstops that are in the app Campercontact. If you are RVing in Europe, just get it. It is even better than the Camperstop book as there are detailed reviews and it costs only $5.50 a year. Orvieto's cathedral is magnificent inside and out. Entrance is 4E and at 5 in the afternoon the tour buses were pretty much gone, so we could see the New chapel almost alone. Absolutely, one of our favorite places in Europe. Even better, the Naples symphony and choir were having a full rehearsal of Verdi's Requiem Mass. We treated ourselves to 20 minutes of stupendous music. Any music in a cathedral is amazing. Last summer we had missed seeing the San Giovenale 11th century church as it had closed when we got there. Checking the hours this time, it was to be open until 6:30, so we reluctantly left the music and trotted across town (which is quite lovely.) Only we found that mass is said every day from 5:00 to 6:30. Determined, we waited it out—hoping we would be allowed a few minutes even at closing. Perhaps because it was a Friday in Lent, mass was not done until 6:50. We hurried in, paid the Illumination machine its 2E and got to see the frescoes. Mark was happy, I was cold. Another once in a lifetime experience. At most.

As an aside, almost as soon as we left the highway north of Rome the “chains required November 15 to April 15” signs started appearing. Luckily, no snow or ice, and we weren't stopped, as I'm sure it would have been a fine. Just remember those dates if you are planning to visit Italy in shoulder season—it can be quite cold. Pretty consistently it has been in the low 60s and high 50s from March 27 until April 10. At night the coldest has been 36. Touring has been pleasant when the sun was out—not so fun when windy and rainy. A second consideration is that April is school field trip month and there are hundreds of busloads of high school and college kids everywhere. Mostly well behaved but still oblivious to those around them—though that seems to be the MO for tour groups in general. Another note is that when my daughter's family visited Pompeii last week they found most of the buildings closed—no baths, no Poet's house, half of the Fawn's house closed etc. So there were long lines for those that were open. They were very disappointed, but glad they had gone to the museum in Naples as much of Pompeii's art work is there. No idea why so much was closed, but something to think about. We found a similar problem when we went to Sicily in late March a number of years ago—boat trips to the islands, some museums, etc. were still closed until the season started later in April.

We happened to be in Arezzo in the fall of 2017 on the first Sunday of the month and stumbled upon the monthly antiques fair. It was a drizzly day and already early afternoon as we had taken advantage of first Sunday free museums all morning, but it still looked terrific. We were excited that we could be in Arezzo for another first Sunday this year. We stayed in the free camperstop outside the walls, arriving early Saturday afternoon. By happenstance we decided to go into town, even managing to find the lovely 6 escalators to the cathedral square. Low and behold, the entire town was blocked off for the antiques fair and it was in full swing. Inquiring at a shop, we found that it always starts on Saturday. We are talking hundreds of tables and booths up and down the streets and allies—and loads of happy Italians enjoying it all. We came back again Sunday and found it much more low key and even some of the vendors gone before noon—we were so glad that we had come into town on Saturday. Rick Steves says there is another huge antique fair in Lucca the third Sunday of the month but that won't work for us on this trip. We didn't buy a thing—but the looking was so much fun.

Off to Siena. We stayed at Parcheggio II Fagiolone—20E for an hour or for 24. Very noisy as it is located between two main roads. There are about 15 designated RV sites—the rest are for tour buses which pay 130E. But it was safe during the day with attendants closely watching comings and goings. Unfortunately, in all of Italy, safe, guarded daytime parking is a must. Lots of break-ins of motor homes are mentioned for free parking areas and even grocery stores. For 20E it is not worth the worry to go with free parking. There are exceptions like Arezzo—I think because there are so many people coming and going from the lot all day. The cathedral in Siena is now 5E to see the main part. A great deal of the marble floor (which is one of the main attractions) is uncovered year round. A few years ago we visited in October when the whole floor was uncovered—an incredible sight. But still outside and in the cathedral has the wow factor. We also walked down to the piazza which is famous but I don't find it that attractive. It is on such a slope and busloads of folks sitting everywhere. The city police patrol it constantly to keep people from eating or drinking—even asking some to stop lying down. There are lots of other things to see in Siena but we were not in the mood to repeat anything, so called it an early afternoon.

Florence is close by and our TomTom routed us again on the tiny narrow road to get to the suburb of Scandicci where our preferred camperstop was located. Mark doesn't think it that bad but certainly if your RV is longer than 7.5 meters you should avoid it. No buses or trucks are allowed on the road so you get the idea. We have stayed in Florence Park Scandicci twice before. Nothing fancy, electric, water and dump available, double gated at night, very quiet with a jump in price from 15E 18 months ago to 20E. Gates closed at lunch and after 7 but a phone number is posted that you can call for the gate code. It is a very convenient 20 minutes or less bus ride to town with a 1.5E ticket. Sometimes the owner has tickets for sale or walk right on main road to tobacco or cafe shop. Tickets on bus are 2.5E. Bus goes till midnight so you can stay out late for dinner in town. Laundromat is 3 blocks away. Our daughter and family had a nice bnb 2 blocks from the Uffizi but up 60 steps with no elevator, so we only visited her once. I am having a lot of pain in my right knee when doing steps. An MRI diagnosed inoperable cysts stemming from a crack in the knee joint leaking fluid. Not much can be done except taking Aleve. Happily, I can still manage 20,000 steps if needed in a day on sloping or flat—just actual stair steps are the problem.

We made reservations for the Uffizi (a must to avoid lines) about a week in advance. Spent a lovely 6 hours there—great place for a lover of Botticelli. Cafe only has outside seating with 5.5E Cokes but reasonable 6E paninis. A week in advance was not enough time to get reservations for the Accademia where the David is located. My daughter ended up having to buy through a more expensive broker. We have been three times, so not on our list. We had dinner at the Bordini Trattatorie that our daughter's friend had highly recommended. Service was poor, risotto with Gorgonzola flavorless, daughter's truffle steak good, our Bifsteak Florence steak arrived literally cold, and we had to send it back for reheating. Prices were reasonable but I would pick another spot for the Florence specialty steak. Later in the week we did just that—at the Rustico Antico di Cambi. Mark and I have eaten there 4 or 5 times over the past 20 years—super excellent every time but easy on-line reservations are a must.

We revisited the Ognissanti Church to see Ghirlandao's Last Supper—it is free and only open Monday and Saturday mornings. Excellent and also there is Amerigo Vespucci's tomb and Botticelli's. Plus there are paintings of St. Jerome and St. Augustine by Ghirlandiao and Botticelli, respectively. We thought about the Medici Chapel—but the line was always awful. We enjoyed the Santa Maria Novella instead. Be sure to bring your binoculars, allow at least 90 minutes and don't miss the farting dragon fresco, or more importantly the Ghirlandiao frescos behind the altar. There is so much to see there. The central market has added a complete floor of restaurants and cafes—open late and everything from Chinese dumplings to pizza. Very popular, to avoid the dense crowds try to have lunch at 12:30 or before. Florence as always is overwhelming in every respect. In the future when we give up the RV, it will be a city to revisit for a couple of weeks from an historic center apartment.

On our last day we picked up granddaughter Penelope, whom we were going to babysit for 6 nights while her parents rent a car and visit Tuscany. Our camper seats and sleeps four but it's still a bit tight. We headed for Lucca to walk the wall and stroll the lovely streets on a Sunday afternoon, then off to Pisa. We stayed at Area Communale for 12E without electricity, 15 with. Just a parking lot with water, dump, but guarded and fenced. It was full by 5 pm the first day. The walk to the Leaning Tower, etc. is about 25 minutes, or there is a bus. We had bought tickets a week before for Mark and Penelope to do the climb. Reservations are a must. We also bought a combo ticket for the Basilica, cemetery and museum but somehow left out the Baptistry—the website is a little confusing with so many choices. Our favorite by far is the cemetery, which is a huge walled rectangle, covered in frescoes. Our favorite the monstrous Buffalmacco Last Judgment of course. They have been under restoration for over a decade and now are doing the very last one. All the buildings in the Field of Miracles have been cleaned so it is all quite striking in its white and green striped splendor. Tourists are not allowed on the main lawn but of course there are mobs all trying to take the perfect picture of themselves holding up the tower. Oh well, to each his own.

After two nights in Pisa we headed to Padua to Park Camper Pontevigodarzere for 8E. Perfectly OK parking area at last tram station, but not fenced or guarded. Tram tickets available at station cafe. We bought online tickets for the Scozvani Chapel several weeks before—Giotto's masterpiece and the birthplace of the Renaissance. Get there early enough to see the optional movie in the museum before the frescoes. The painting museum adjacent is also worthwhile—no blockbusters but a lot of art. The Chapel is also called the Arena because it was built next to a Roman arena, whose outer walls are also still standing. Certainly worth an afternoon if you are near Venice.

Off to Venice. We have visited three times before and honestly had not planned a return. It is a fascinating place but really once done, done, unless you are a fan of Venetian art, which we are not. However, that is where we were to meet Penelope's parents. We stayed at Camping Venezia, a short bus ride to the boat docks to Venice. It was in our ASCI discount camping book for 20E for 2 of the 3 nights and had an indoor pool. Friday night was Easter weekend and the price rose to high season for 33E plus 5E each night extra for Penelope. Given its location, it was a pretty nice campground though the first night we parked too close to the bar and playground. How does one forget that Europeans allow their children to stay up playing and screaming past midnight while they socialize at the bar? What is truly expensive is the vaporetti (water bus) to and from Venice. 7.5 E each trip or 20E for a day pass, plus the bus fare of 3E RT. Penelope was slightly less but not free after age 5. So $72 for one day—that mounts up fast. We limited our visit to St. Mark's (where the Rick Steve's tip of checking a backpack still works to avoid the line), the Rialto bridge area and just wondering around. The later was the best now that we have a smart phone to navigate with. Getting “lost” in Venice before was truly a nightmare of endless walking and panicked map skills. Usually to no avail with poor street “signage.” Occasionally we lost GPS but it was way better. Can't say that for lunch. I wanted to eat by a canal—which I knew without researching reviews would be a rip off. Great scenery but a very pricey mediocre lunch. Mark had the house specialty of white fish-7E per 100 grams—his fairly medium size managed to weigh 400 grams. We allowed ourselves to be talked into garlic bread—who could think it would be 8E. At the end when the bill was presented the waiter told me that the “servizio” added at the end was tax, not tip. We left no additional tip. This last part is becoming quite common. Service and tax are included in the bill unless otherwise stated on the menu—but waiters will tell you there is no “tip” included. It is included but not called a tip. In the past, we have always rounded up our bills as recommended for good service—but I won't do that when they try this new scam.

After leaving Penelope with her parents we headed east on the tollway to Croatia. Yes, we were just there last June. But we had a week before we were to be in Milan for our Last Supper tickets, and Italy's lake country was the only other real possibility, as the Dolomites still had lots of snow. The Lake country is pretty, but there is really nothing to do there except look at the lakes or ride around on the boats—done that. I wanted to return to Plitvich Lakes National Park to repeat the 6 mile waterfall walk. It was only about a 7 hour drive from Venice—even with road construction delays and a huge goof with our Tom Tom. We were using the toll-roads (except in Slovenia--more on that later), so I thought all would be well. Wrong. Plitvich is in central Croatia, good bit away from any large town or city. Tom got us off the toll road and after 20 miles or so indicated a turn down what looked like a driveway that went straight up the mountain. We don't have a road atlas for Croatia, but do have one that covers all of Europe. Once, I figured out where we were—not an easy task, I found the road—not a nice red one, but yellow and many, many kilometers long before it reached the park. No way. So we backtracked to the toll-road and went the long way round adding about an hour to our trip. We ended up spending the night at one of the little campgrounds we stayed at last year—Zelena Dolina, 20E. Basically in the farmers plum orchard. He again treated us to homemade schnapps and when we checked out the next morning, Eastermorning, two hand-painted eggs from his wife.

Last year I wrote that I didn't think it would be long before a reservation system was instituted at the Plitvice Lakes national park. I was right, but I didn't think it would happen so soon. I had checked to be sure the park would be open on Easter but did not notice that you could now get tickets for a certain time period for entry up to two days before your visit. Last time we started at entrance 2 so this time I wanted to start at entrance 1. So did everyone else. We arrived at 11, parked at the very end of the multiple lots, waited in the ticket line for 45 minutes, and got an entrance time of 1 pm. So after a long lunch break we started in. The boardwalks were very crowded, lots of jostling for pictures, dogs, Mark was annoyed, I sighed a lot. I remembered the long walk but not all the steps—lots of steps. In six hours we saw only 1 couple older than us and heard only two parties speaking English. At the boat the wait was 50 minutes and, at the end, the wait for the shuttle back about 40.

Easter weekend was not a good plan, but I still enjoyed it. Having now walked from either end I would recommend parking at entrance 2, taking the shuttle to the top and walking down (though there is lots of up at the end). For the best pictures try to start by 11. Expect to wait at the boat and shuttle any time of year, bring lots of water and snacks, as lines at the food stands are long. The leaves were just beginning to come out so we had lots of sun. In summer the path is about 50% shaded. I had my hiking poles, which helped my knee a lot on the dirt paths but were a hindrance on the more numerous boardwalks. No matter the crowds, it is well worth your trip.

After the park we spent the night nearby and in the still being-built stage Plitvich Holiday Resort. 20E with our discount card but 4E tax. Quite nice, pool, mini golf, restaurant, playground. Besides four types of campsites there were tree house cabins, motel rooms, mobile homes, and a teepee Indian village! Lots of holiday accommodations are being built in the area and nearly every house advertises rooms, zimmer, sobel, apartmans. Unfortunately, just outside the park area are still bombed and burnt homes and abandoned Serbian farms that stand as sad reminders of the recent war.

So the other reason to return to the Balkans was to repeat our visit to the Skocjan Cave in Slovenia. Planning our drive out from Plitvich, I consulted our TomTom, Google maps and the atlas. No good route. We could go back the way we came, backtracking through the park, but the best route was north to Ljubljana and then southwest to the caves. The only problem was the GPS wanted us to get on the Slovenian toll roads. In Slovenia they use a vignette sticker—for our small camper, 30E for a week was the minimum. We needed about 90 minutes on the tollway—it just seemed ridiculous to pay that. So I noticed this nice fat, red road leading from the tollway at the border with Croatia right to Ljubliana. I forced Tom to take that road, and we were set. It was a lovely spring day, and lovely rural scenery. In fact in Slovenia we could hardly believe the rural prosperity—lovely villages, no decrepit houses. The road had gotten somewhat smaller but was still fine with ATVers, motorcyclists, bicyclists, all out enjoying Easter Monday holiday. We arrived in the small town of Visnja Gora, Tom advised us to turn left, and there it was-- an 18% grade sign and a dwindling road up the mountain. CRAP!! Pulling over, I studied our inadequate atlas as the road the other direction was the entrance to the Slovenian tollroad. How could we be in Visnja Gora , the nice fat red road didn't go there, only the scenic yellow road. Well, I hadn't forced Tom hard enough, and he had many, many kilometers back taken us on a parallel road. There was nothing to do but get on the tollway and cross our fingers. In 10 kilometers we got back off and only the last of the red road as it entered Ljubljana. I later researched the fine, had we been caught—320E for cars and likely double that for a camper. Half off if you paid on the spot. The private toll patrol cars mostly lurk at the borders, but they do a land office business as the signage entering Slovenia is, some think, purposely small about the need for the vignette.

We spent three nights in Ljubljana at the free, including electricity, camperstop Dogli Most. Driving rain all day, so we just stayed in the camper. I would have liked to to into Ljubljana as it is a delightful town, but not in a cold, rain—high all day only 51. It was weird that the Campercontact app where I found this stop said no overnight allowed. However, there is no signage to that effect and it was full every night and police cars drove past a couple of times a day.

Moving on we headed for the second reason we returned to the Balkans this spring—Skocjan Cave. We had no problems finding it on the regular roads coming from the south last time—this time was a mess. I was using both Google Maps and Tom Tom. After about an hour roaming hill and dale, including dirt roads, we realized that there were two Skocjan Caves—Lord knows why and they were 30 miles apart. So we missed the noon tour but got tickets for 1 o'clock. It was surprisingly busy with about as many folks going on tour 1 as last year in June. In the summer you can continue on another hour to see more of the river valley but the rest of the year that part is a separate guided tour. The cave is same old, same old for the first part—stalagmites, stalactites, etc. Then you enter the murmuring cave (or I would call it roaring cave.), here the underground river is present below you. The cave itself is 450 ft from river to ceiling and immensely wide. You wind down the side on steel, well fenced walkways and cross the river on a bridge. Looks scary in pictures but we had 4 and 5 year olds in our group. The entire tour is about 7000 steps on my pedometer with over 500 actual steps up and down. I went slowly with no problem and so many people stop to ogle and take illegal pictures and the guide waits for everyone to catch up at each talking point. Often seeing something the second time is a let down—not this something. There was more mist this time, especially down near the river, the guide said it varies with the temperature of the water entering the cave and rate of flow. We were there this time in the spring, after a rainy day. He said in February the cave had completely flooded, the second highest in history, knocking out all the electric. There were still some dead leaves on the walkways left behind from sweep of the river. Nevertheless, I can't recommend it more highly.

Rather than stay in the area we drove on towards Trieste, stopping for a second time in a week at Porky's luscious bar-b-cue for ribs. We hopped on the Italian autostrada to miss Trieste and exited at Monfalcone. We set Tom we thought for Verona—an intermediary stop to Milan—and told him no toll roads. Before I fully realized where he was taking us we were almost to Venice, across miles of low lying farmland with not a camperstop in the area and it growing dark. Out came the Italian atlas, Google maps, CamperContact app, and TomTom. Using all I found a free camperstop near Treviso that we could get to on the autostrada in 40 minutes—no one had written a review since 2015, but the picture seemed likely. Worse come to worse, we would stop at a restaurant and offer to pay to spend the night. The Parcheggio Comunale, La Sicillia turned out to be spacious, level and quiet. We spent an uneventful night. Next morning after studying the atlas it seemed that the red roads to Milan were a pretty straight shot. But in Venezia we were halted by a 40 minute traffic jam. Mark voted to give up on the red roads—autostrada to Milan. In fact the 230 km only cost 15 E. We were amazed. I expected it to be 40-50. Just note that tolls are much higher in the Italian Alps.

Milan is a place with only one camperstop—the New Park-which is also a storage lot, and one campground a good bit out of town—25E and 39E respectively with tax. When we got to the New Park he said they were full for the weekend. I was flabbergasted. I asked is something special was going on—no, they are always full on weekends and all summer. I think he sensed our desperation as a huge storm was about to break, he finally decided he would find a place for us—call ahead for reservations.

I need to get this to Kathy, so I'll finish Italy next month. Takeaways from this month so far—reservations, reservations, reservations, the new evil of travel. Free camperstops in Italy are only available in rural villages, near anywhere touristy expect 20-25E a night. The Balkans are still a marvelous place but buy the Slovenian vignette or have a really good map/atlas available. Remember distances are deceptive in Europe. It is only 2 1/2 hours from Venice to the Skocjan Caves and only 4 hours from Venice to Milan on the toll road. Italian waiters have learned to ask for a tip in addition to the service charge already included on the menu. And finally the first few weeks of April are marginal weather anywhere in Italy except the south and the coast, unless you are staying in hotels and if you are driving, chains are required till April 15 anywhere in the interior including Tuscany. Next month Italy to Paris but have to go round the Alps.